What voters want
by Tom Sullivan
Heading into the fall election campaigns, friends with ears to the ground around my state consistently hear two issues are on voters’ minds: affordable health care and rural broadband. About health care people know plenty and there is still much to debate. Broadband access also improves people’s lives, and in places that could stand some improvement. This is a topic I am just digging into, but it is percolating out here beyond the Beltway.
Imagine something government can do for citizens that’s actually popular, especially outside cities:
The U.S. Senate hopes to aid rural areas across the country in expanding access to broadband internet with $425 million allocated in its agriculture appropriations bill.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced the funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Services’ broadband grant-loan pilot program Tuesday. The new grant-loan program, created with funds in the omnibus spending bill passed in March, allows companies, municipalities, Native American tribes and other organizations to apply for funding to build or improve broadband technology in rural and tribal areas or acquire the facilities and equipment for it.
According to a release from the senators, more than a third of residents in rural areas and 41 percent of tribal residents lack broadband internet.
“Internet access has become one of our most basic necessities, yet some rural communities still don’t have access to this essential technology,” Sen. Gillibrand said in a statement. “People, schools, hospitals and businesses all rely on high-speed internet to succeed at work and have a good quality of life.”
The bill also includes $53 million for grants to purchase transmission facilities, interactive video equipment, audio equipment, computer hardware and technical assistance to expand telemedicine services in rural areas.
It reforms broadband loan and infrastructure programs to ensure funds are targeted on areas that are currently unserved by high-speed internet. It enlists the two federal agencies with the most experience in broadband deployment – the FCC and NTIA – to map out and prioritize the unserved areas.
And most important, it puts a stop to corporate manipulation that would divert funds needed to wire unserved rural areas into areas where broadband service is already available – putting an end to the wasteful practice where federal broadband funds are diverted to areas already served by the private sector, doubling up broadband for the “haves” while leaving the real “have-nots” marooned in the analog past.
There is, of course, some R-on-D bickering over private-sector support vs. allowing locals to invest in their own broadband infrastructure. Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.) clashed last month with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) during a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing on expanding rural broadband.
Eshoo defended the Community Broadband Act:
Eshoo said state legislatures are “screwing” local communities that want to invest in their own networks. She said many Americans, even those in some parts of Silicon Valley — the center of the country’s tech industry, have trouble accessing broadband.
“When at least a third is either underserved or not served in the second decade of the 21st century, that’s a major issue for our country,” she said.
This is a topic around which there is a lot of talk and too little action. I have only been on the periphery of the topic, but rural areas know they’re getting shorted. Broadband access is an issue in Colorado. It’s an issue in Ohio. And in Arizona, Iowa, Idaho, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
At that House hearing last month, a witness from North Carolina expressed the same frustrations:
Suzanne Coker Craig, a former commissioner in Pinetops, N.C. and a small business owner, said residents in her town benefitted when a neighboring locality build up their own municipal broadband network.
But Craig said, the state legislature placed restrictions on the ability to share that network with other towns.
“Our own state legislature has constantly fought to disconnect us and take away the best economic, educational and lifestyle benefit we have had in 50 years.”
Besides boosting education and small-business in rural areas, seems to me giving people what they want and need might help Democrats make friends in places the where they need more.
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